Jim Newell, The Guardian

For a second consecutive year, Senator Rand Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference's straw poll for 2016 presidential candidates. It wasn't even close.

Paul finished ahead of Texas Senator Ted Cruz by a 20% margin, winning 31% of the 2,459 votes cast. Retired neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson finished third with 9%. The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, who wasn't invited to speak last year for supposed heresies to the conversative movement, came in fourth with 8%.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, second with 23% last year, finished far back at 6% after a year in which his work on comprehensive immigration reform alienated many conservatives.

Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, once again capitalized on a strong conference representation from student organizations and the libertarian faithful who in years past came to boost his father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. Unlike his father, however, the younger Paul is considered a viable candidate when the 2016 primary season begins – not just a protest figure.

Paul's victory cannot just be pinned to the typically libertarian-skewed audience, though. Certain libertarian beliefs that only a few years ago would have been considered fringe by the mainstream party are now open to discussion.

The conference featured several healthy debates about appropriating traditionally liberal ideas: criminal justice reform and the elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences; marijuana legalization and a pullback on the 40-year-old war on drugs; and reform of the national security state's surveillance apparatus.

Even as recently as the George W Bush administration, Republicans who espoused these ideas would have been labeled soft on crime, stoners or enablers of terrorism, respectively. By this year, they had the backing of high-profile conservative figures like Texas Governor Rick Perry, anti-tax enforcer Grover Norquist and, of course, Senator Paul.

The reformers pushing for these ideas did so under the mantle of expanding personal liberty and shrinking the size of government. Expanding personal liberty, in all its forms, was at the heart of Paul's standing-room-only speech on Friday afternoon.

Paul took on the CPAC crowd's two great enemies in equal doses: the Democratic party and the Republican establishment.

"I don't question President Obama's motives," he said in lambasting the administration's regulatory policies and defense of a robust surveillance state, "but history will remember his timid defense of liberty."

In perhaps the biggest applause line of the conference, Paul declared: "If you have a cell phone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business."

As for fellow members of his party, Paul advised discretion in selecting candidates. "You might think I'm talking about electing Republicans; I'm not," he said. "I'm talking about electing friends of liberty."

The straw poll results were announced at the end of a mostly quiet last day at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, a few miles outside Washington.

By Saturday, most of the potential 2016 presidential candidates had spoken. Among the bigger draws were retiring Representative Michele Bachmann, the colorful, controversial Minnesotan delivering her last address as a member of Congress, and Carson, who in the past year has become a major draw on the right for his outspoken beliefs on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act.

The doctor has a penchant for incendiary comparisons of these policies to slavery, bestiality, the Nazis, and so forth. His speech on Saturday was well received, if a touch defensive in its repeated condemnations of the "PC police".

The night closed with the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, whom the CPAC crowd always loves – especially when they're certain that she won't bother running for office anymore.

She's a natural, if peculiar, entertainer for these high-paying customers. The stunts this year included a play on Dr Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham ("I do not like this Uncle Sam, I do not like this healthcare scam/I do not like these dirty crooks or how they lie and cook the books"); a line about how you "can't make a phone call without Michelle Obama knowing this is the third time this week you've dialed Pizza Hut delivery"; referring to MSNBC as "MSLSD"; and making fun of Secretary of State John Kerry's face.

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